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Toyota’s NASCAR entry all about the heartland

With its recently-announced plan to enter a Camry — the nation’s best-selling car — in the NASCAR Nextel Cup and Busch series in 2007, Toyota is hoping to rev up its marketing efforts in America’s heartland. By’s Roland Jones.
With its entry into NASCAR, Toyota plans to boost its profile in the Midwest. Experts say it could be a winning strategy.Chuck Burton / AP
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In the fierce struggle to win over the hearts and minds of American automobile consumers, Toyota is preparing to do battle in the nation’s heartland.

This week, Toyota announced it plans to become the first foreign manufacturer since the 1950s to supply cars for NASCAR’s top series, entering a Camry — the nation’s best-selling car — in the NASCAR Nextel Cup and Busch series in 2007.

The move has predictably stirred up some debate among racing enthusiasts and evoked some red, white and blue patriotism. But jingoism aside, analysts say Toyota’s racing strategy rally comes down to consumer demographics, and it has the potential to drive large dividends to the Japanese automaker.

“This is all about getting Toyota out there in front of the NASCAR fan, and that fan tends to be more of a blue-collar consumer,” said Bruce Harrison, senior automotive consultant at the consultancy Global Insight. “And if these people start to embrace Toyota, it’s going to spell big trouble for General Motors and Ford.”

A road trip through the middle of America shows that, as a general rule, blue-collar workers, who mainly live in the center of the country, tend to be loyal to the so-called Big Three — GM, Ford and Chrysler — and buy American cars. Meanwhile, on the coasts — where some the politically Democratic, or “blue” states are found — consumers tend to buy more foreign-made cars: BMWs, Toyotas and Hondas.

The trend presents a problem for manufacturers like Toyota, which only sees about 15 percent of its sales in the U.S. Midwest. “American” automakers, like GM and Ford, on the other hand, while they tend to have a loyal following in the center of the country, where may of their assembly plants are located, are struggling to increase their sales in coastal regions of the country.

In an effort to erode Detroit’s supremacy in the American heartland, Toyota has formulated what its executives have called a “Heartland Strategy,” which includes its entry of a Toyota Camry the top Nextel and Busch NASCAR race series next year and a recent marketing partnership with the National Basketball Association.

Toyota follows its Detroit counterparts in hitching its sales wagon to NASCAR, one of the nation’s most popular and fast-growing sports. Toyota began competing in NASCAR in the 2000 Goody’s Dash Series and for the past two years has raced in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series with its Tundra pickup. But the involvement in NASCAR’s top races, with its strong corporate sponsorship where for years U.S. automakers would “win on Sunday and sell on Monday,” presents a big opportunity for the firm.

NASCAR estimates it has some 75 million fans who purchase over $2 billion in annual licensed product sales. They are among the most brand-loyal, with an estimated 72 percent opting to buy the products sponsoring their favorite drivers according to NASCAR.

“These events draw 200,000 people and they are incredibly loyal,” said Rebecca Lindland, an automotive analyst at consultancy Global Insight.

“If the car you’re following is sponsored by Tide, you’ll only buy Tide — it’s just the NASCAR way. This is a driver-driven sport, and so if Michael Waltrip is driving a Toyota car you’re going to support Toyota, and it’s going to bring a lot of people into a Toyota dealership that don’t normally go in there,” Lindland said.

Toyota will start its NASCAR racing with three teams and six cars — the established two-car team owned by Bill Davis, the team owned by two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip, which is moving up from Busch, and the all-new Team Red Bull.

Global Insight’s Bruce Harrison expects a deal between Toyota and Lowe's Motor Speedway, the North Carolina race track that is considered the home of NASCAR racing, and Speedway Motorsports, a race track management company, to yield many promotional opportunities for Toyota.

“What Toyota has done here is not only get NASCAR’s approval, they also have leverage where these events take place,” said Harrison. “NASCAR supporters tend to go to a race track and spend a lot of time there, so Toyota can display trucks and really engage the blue collar crowd.

Lowe’s Motor Speedway’s president and general manager “Humpy” Wheeler “is the P. T. Barnum of motor sports, and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to start seeing the new Toyota Tundra pickup at Lowe’s stores, or as a store’s loaner truck,” Harrison said.

“All kinds of different things can go on and all of it is geared toward putting a Toyota in front of a blue collar, NASCAR customer — it opens up a huge blue-collar market to them that was essentially closed before they entered this sport,” Harrison added.

As Toyota pushes into the heartland it heaps pressure on the big U.S. carmakers, which are seeing their U.S. market shares shrink. Current national market share has GM with 26 percent, Ford with 18 percent, DaimlerChrysler with 14 percent and Toyota with 13 percent, according to Global Insight. But at its current rate of growth Global Insight expects Toyota to surpass DaimlerChrysler’s share of the U.S. market during 2006.

But while there is potential for profit, especially if the Toyota cars win races, there’s also potential for backlash against the company, analysts say.

There may be a hostile response from all-American racing fans upset by the downturn in Detroit’s car-making fortunes at the expense of Toyota, or those concerned with maintaining support for struggling U.S. automakers. In addition, there’s also the potential for other up-and-coming Asian car makers like Hyundai and Kia to take market share from Toyota just as they took market share from Ford, GM and Chrysler. And those U.S. carmakers shouldn’t be ruled out of the equation either notes Bruce Harrison.

“Toyota has done a great job of providing the smart alternative to the Big Three, but Hyundai and others now have the opportunity to do to Toyota what Toyota has done to the Big Three,” Harrison said. “Once you become number one, you become the target everyone else’s shots.”

“But Toyota has done a great job of managing success,” Harrison continued. “They have had a statesman like approach to the U.S. market and they have never badmouthed Ford, or GM. What they typically do is they just sneak up and take market share. So if they come in saying Toyota is better than everybody else, then yes there could be a backlash. But if they just simply win races, it’s a different scenario.”

Another reason why there might not be any great resistance to Toyota is the company has been part of the American consumer landscape for a half-century, notes Jim Aust, vice president of Toyota Motorsports and president and CEO of Toyota Racing Development, USA. In 2007, Toyota will celebrate its 50th year doing business in the U.S.

“We’re part of American business,” Aust said. “The production Camrys are built in Georgetown, Ky., at one of our eight plants in the U.S.,” Aust added. “And the company employs more than 140,000 Americans.”

Aust acknowledges there were fears among the Toyota hierarchy of a backlash when the company moved into the truck series. But it didn’t materialize.

“We sold 2.2 million units in the U.S. in 2005. I think the numbers are a big part of the acceptance, as far as NASCAR is concerned,” Aust said. “We don’t really anticipate there is going to be a great surprise. Certainly there are going to be people that have their own opinions here and there, but overall we’re very happy with the reaction so far.”